Inflation is rampant, interest rates are raising faster than at any time in the last 28 years, petrol prices are skyrocketing, and the ongoing stresses of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the lingering pandemic, supply chain issues, and other factors aren’t helping matters. All of which means we’re in unquestionably murky economic waters. Well, murkier.
Economic troubles aren’t only the stuff of headlines — they are great fodder for the movies, too. Hollywood has a mixed record when it comes to tackling financial instability. For decades, the Production Code placed restrictions on filmmakers that forbade getting too critical about the country in general or capitalism in particular. If you can’t critique capitalism, it’s nearly impossible to say anything meaningful about the economy. That changed slowly over time, and the 2008 financial crisis opened the floodgates to a surge of memorable narrative films and documentaries exploring the economy from any number of intriguing angles.
Aside from being often quite entertaining, these 18 films are all sadly evergreen, in that the fundamental problems of capitalism and wealth inequality have yet to be addressed in a meaningful way.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Released less than a year after the publication of John Steinbeck’s novel, this film spoke to Depression-era America as few others of the time were willing to. It’s the story of a family’s stunted migration west following the loss of their small patch of Oklahoma farmland to giant farm combines and deedholders. In the brief period between the Depression and World War II, the outrage at capitalism’s excesses, even as huge portions of the country were starving, was palpable, and The Grapes of Wrath captures a moment during which it was OK to speak truth to economic power. Its suggestion that empathy could ever be as worthwhile a force in America as capital was even taken seriously. The coming second world war and the communist witch-hunts that followed it saw its reputation decline, with many interpreting its focus on the suffering of American workers as little more than porto-socialist propaganda. Sigh.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of stockbroker and scammer Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is, for much of the movie’s runtime, having a grand time living the high life on other people’s dimes, swindling investors via pump-and-dump stock schemes. Then, law enforcement starts investigating, his substance abuse gets out of control, and his problems with domestic violence become more overt. It all unravels for him in the mid-1990s, by which time the coke-fuelled excess of the ‘80s had given way to a no-less-troubling era of high-risk, high-reward tech startups and boiler rooms. It was a high-water mark for the modern American economy in many ways, but plenty of people were suffering at the hands of con artists promising much more than they ever planned to deliver.
The extent to which the film glorifies Belfort (it’s based on his memoir) has been broadly debated, but that ambiguity captures something that’s been deeply baked into our culture at least since the 1980s: We admire bling and we’re fascinated by those who life high on the economic food chain, even when they’e grifted their way to the top. That probably has something to do with Belfort’s continued relevance as a motivational speaker and (more recently) a crypto advocate. After defrauding 1,500 clients for well over $US100 ($139) million dollars, we’re still interested in what he has to say. The film’s denouement see Belfort out of prison and on the lecture circuit, but it’s presented as yet another con job, ending on a shot of an enraptured audience that turns a mirror on us.
Boiler Room (2000)
Giovanni Ribisi stars (alongside a pre-Fast & Furious Vin Diesel) as Seth Davis, the son of a federal judge and college dropout who finds himself drawn into the world of shady brokerage firm J.T. Marlin. Davis isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue, and gradually becomes entwined in the his employer’s efforts to inflate penny stock prices, efforts that go so far as to include creating bogus companies. As with Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room is also based on the life of scammer Jordan Belfort, but much (much) more loosely, with Ribisi’s character eventually turning to the FBI once he gets a sense of just how far J.T. Marlin is willing to go to defraud investors. Unlike Scorsese’s film, Boiler Room retains a bit of optimism in its willingness to accept that an insider with a guilty conscience might be willing to turn against the tide — and thus, it seems like a throwback to a simpler era of movie-making.
99 Homes (2014)
Shockingly underseen, especially given its A-list cast (Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, and Laura Dern co-star), 99 Homes tackles the housing crisis of the 2007–2009 Great Recession era via the fictional story of Dennis Nash (Garfield), who loses the home he shares with his mother and young son following a layoff and subsequent foreclosure. In a Faustian twist, he’s approached by the real estate operator responsible for the eviction with an offer: if Nash takes on the job of kicking 99 others out of their own homes, he’ll get to keep his house. This ground-level look at the fallout from economic turmoil eschews the glitz and glamor that accompanies movies concerned with the lives of the economic power players, while also dramatizing the viciousness of a system that pits those on the lower rungs of the ladder against each other.
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
In 2004, timeshare maven David Siegel and model Jackie Siegel began construction on what was to have been one of the largest (and, it must be said, tackiest) private homes in America, situated near Orlando and designed as a Palace of Versailles knock-off. The financial downturn of 2008 takes a huge chunk out of the family business, however, forcing them to downsize rather significantly (at least when compared to their palatial ambitions). Smartly, the movie doesn’t approach the central couple as villains (not entirely), but instead sees them as stand-ins in for anyone drawn into the gaudier aspects of the American dream. A recent series, The Queen of Versailles Reigns Again, catches up with the family, but it takes more of a reality show approach, compared to the movie’s more complex take.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Early on in this David Mamet-written classic, Adam Baldwin’s hotshot real estate salesperson Blake makes clear to a rather pitiful group of underlings that only two of them will survive an upcoming round of layoffs, and that their only hope to remain employed is to use any means necessary to cut out their co-workers and sell questionable properties to clients who probably can’t afford what they’re buying. Among the most biting of America’s economic parables, and presented as a microcosm of America-style capitalism, Glengarry Glen Ross (like 99 Homes) makes clear that we’re all living inside of a pyramid scheme in which small handful of people at the top make money by manipulating everyone down the line into screwing everyone else.
Too Big to Fail (2011)
The 2008 financial meltdown brought the “too big to fail” phrasing into the lexicon when the Bush administration spearheaded efforts to save some of the country’s largest financial institutions from insolvency, based on the questionable economic theory that certain banks are too large and too influential to be allowed to collapse. To this HBO movie’s credit, it’s not a screed, but instead an effort to explain, as dramatically as is feasible given the subject matter, the circumstances surrounding that particular moment, and the need on the parts of politicians to sell voters on the idea that the very institutions that had screwed them were now deserving of bail-outs. The narrative effectively conveys the sense of white-knuckle fear among some in power that the economy was poised to enter a freefall, and also the ambiguity surrounding the morally and economically debatable logic of handing out cash to those who had shown themselves to be irresponsible stewards.
The Big Short (2015)
Likely the most critically acclaimed and awarded film about global finance, and certainly one of the most popular, The Big Short is a comedy-drama adaptation of a nonfiction bestseller. Set during the lead-up to the 2007 housing market crash and 2008 financial downturn, the film stars Christian Bale as real-life hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who realises that the number of sub-prime loans that are about to default will devastate the economy. Rather than ringing alarm bells, he naturally finds a way to profit off of the situation by creating a credit default swap market that allows him to make bank by betting against the housing market — which also accelerates the process of collapse. There aren’t really any heroes here, but the pointedly funny movie has fun making complicated financial terms a bit more easily understandable.
Inside Job (2010)
An Academy Award winner for best documentary, Inside Job breaks down the many factors that led to the 2008 financial crisis. In five parts, the Matt Damon-narrated movie covers decades of deregulation, the tech stock bubble of the early 2000s, a period of sub-prime mortgages, and the growth of “too big to fail,” among other worrisome factors, making the subject matter both approachable and scarily self-evident. It might sound like a period piece, but few of the problems that caused trouble in 2008 have been addressed in any meaningful way, and many of the restrictions placed on financial institutions in the aftermath have been rolled back; there’s plenty here that’s still deeply relevant.
Wall Street (1987)
It’s the movie that taught us that “greed is good,” with that memorable line from Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) putting him on lists of the greatest villains in film history — and, in appropriately American style, making him a hero to many who saw in Gekko’s lavish, high-stakes lifestyle as something worth aspiring to. A composite of several prominent real figures, the stock trader and corporate raider became a symbol of the fast-paced allure of the 1980s, rather than of its coke-fuelled excess. Though not in any way a documentary, Oliver Stone’s film suggests the ways in which the financial world of the decade paved the way for our modern economy.
Margin Call (2011)
Another of the many movies inspired by the 2008 financial downturn, Margin Call largely takes place in the immediate run-up to catastrophe, as a team of stock traders struggle to contain the damage to their firm and themselves following the revelation that the company is massively over-leveraged and in danger of bankruptcy. It’s a fictionalized but roughly approximate account of the situation many real life firms found themselves in, and hints at the broader consequences for the economy as a whole.
Ilo Ilo (2013)
Set during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the sweet but pointed Ilo Ilo finds the title family taking on a Filipina domestic helper, Terry (Angeli Bayani), who had come to Singapore seeking a better life. The family treats Terry with disdain, collecting her passport and allowing their son, Jiale, to speak to her in horrifying ways. But broader economic troubles have pushed them all into keeping secrets: Teck, Jail’s father, lost his job and is gambling while he pretends to go to work each day. Hwee Leng becomes hooked on expensive self-help products, and Terry herself gets caught up in Jiale’s schemes, fearing that she’ll lose her job if she makes a move to stop him. It’s about as good a ground-level explication of bad economic times as they come, an appropriately dark, but sensitive look at the ways in which broader market conditions can force families into compromised positions.
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
By the end of the 1930s, Hollywood was already feeling wistful for the golden age of the gangster picture, a genre that reached its height during the early part of the decade. While often tagged with a crime-doesn’t-pay moral, there were also sometimes hints of Robin Hood in those films. Following the 1929 stock market crash that eradicated notions of endless growth and prosperity while wiping out fortunes large and small, small-time gangsters seemed a bit more savoury (and more honest) than the big-money speculators who’d tanked the economy. The Roaring Twenties (starring James Cagney and a not-yet A-list Humphrey Bogart) surveys the entire era, looking at the impacts of prohibition and the subsequent economic collapse via the crooks who are, on one level, making the best of bad economic times.
Based on a true story (outlined in a 2015 New York magazine article headlined “The Hustlers at Scores”), Hustlers stars Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, and Cardi B as a group of New York strippers who, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that inspired so many films about white male stockbrokers, target those same rich men by drugging them and running up their credit cards. I don’t think anyone would make the case that roofies are the best way to handle economic insecurity, but the movie represents a perspective on the financial collapse that’s every bit as valid as The Big Short’s.
Debuting to mixed reviews and tepid box office, Rollover was, in many ways, ahead of its time in its depiction of the worlds of investment banking and high finance — subjects American films hadn’t dramatized so directly in earlier decades. It begins with Jane Fonda’s Lee Winters inheriting a chemical company from her husband, who we soon learn was murdered. He had been about to blow the whistle on the existence of a secret and illegal slush fund tied to both the company and the bank that’s providing financing. The principal characters here (played by the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Hume Cronyn) frequently speak in overtly conspiratorial tones, which seemed, perhaps, a bit over the top over the time. Later revelations (like the secret tapes of Enron executives filled with dialogue that would be over-the-top for comic book villains) make the narrative seem relatively tame.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
Oliver Stone returns to Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko a couple of decades later and, in a Jordan Belfort-esque turn, finds him out of prison and with a book to peddle, giving lectures to students about a coming economic downturn (circa 2008). He’s a little wiser, but an encounter with a young trader named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) sees him pulled back into the life he (mostly) left behind. There’s a fair bit of melodrama involving the relationships between Gekko, his daughter Winnie, and Jake, but the financial wheeling and dealing of the first film remains intact. Stone dramatizes some of the true stories of that real-life crisis, with fictional characters discussing “too big to fail”-style bailouts. If the entertaining and well-acted sequel is less effective than the original, its only because we’re no longer surprised by any of the darkness it explores.
Rogue Trader (1999)
It’s not the best movie on this list, but 1999’s Rogue Trader still feels surpassingly prescient. Ewan MacGregor plays Nick Leeson, a real-life derivatives trader whose fraudulent and highly speculative trades lead to the 1995 collapse of Barings Bank, one of the United Kingdom’s oldest financial institutions (founded in 1762). The movie attempts to recreate the casino-like feel of Leeson’s world at the time, with parallels to the life of Jordan Belfort and to the handful of films about or inspired by that American stockbroker. Both men made post-prison money on the speaking circuit, so demand clearly remains high for the wisdom of shady financiers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Crash (1932)
Perhaps it’s not the most astute film about a financial crisis, but there’s an immediacy to director William Dieterle’s The Crash, likely born of its timing: hastily produced, it was released just three years after the 1929 Wall Street crash that led to the depression that still gripped the country. Ruth Chatterton plays Linda Gault, a woman from a poor background who’s married to a stockbroker but maintains relationships with other wealthy men on the side as a sort of insurance policy; she has no intention of ever being poor again. When the crash comes, she’s more than willing to use her charms to try to save her marriage, or at the least herself, from a life of poverty. It’s a formulaic melodrama, but also a fascinating bit of pop culture from a particularly troubled time.